The depth in men's tennis


EVERY now and then an old argument will be removed from the mothballs, dusted clean and debated anew. Tossed around will be the idea that Sampras was Laver's equal, and in a fresh twist Federer's name will be added to the deliberations. In all the hurling of various points back and forth, the modern players will arm themselves with one familiar weapon: Laver never faced the depth of players they did.

It is rumoured that the generous Laver admitted once that he rarely played anyone of substance till the fourth round or quarter-finals, a gentle slur perhaps on those he manhandled in early rounds, but an honest appraisal of the depth of the draw. Quite simply, there were insufficient players of quality.

But the lightweight draws of the past have vanished, and no better testimony is required than Andy Roddick's first-round exit at the US Open. It was a shock, and then it wasn't. His conqueror Giles Muller, mostly unknown beyond the shores of his home in Luxemborg, has a leftie's sliding serve McEnroe would approve of, damaging groundstrokes, is unafraid of the net and clearly undaunted by the moment. He was also ranked No. 68 in the world. When top players commence tournaments by saying they're taking it round by round, it is not merely a polite response, but also a sign of respect for their fellow men in the locker room. Barring the odd practitioner bereft of valuable inches and thus forced to rely on cleverness and quickness, tennis courts are frequented with steadfast stereotypes — tall, strapping chaps, of sound technique and roaring ambition.

More and more players are quietly drifting towards academies not just in America, but Spain and recently even Australia, once addicted to grass, sent its top juniors there, for on the Catalan clay is taught a powerfully reliable game. No surprise, Muller went there, too. Claycourt instruction is highly thought of, it helps manufacture powerful foundations of stroke technique and footwork on which can even be built hardcourt ambitions. On both these surfaces, are to be found the modern warriors, of fluency on both flanks, muscle on most shots and wings on feet. It is like a factory line of robotic baseliners. Less depth is to be seen only at Wimbledon, where a tiny cross-section of players are capable of victory, mostly because serve-volley is a textbook long since burnt at the stake, though purveyors of that ancient art like Taylor Dent find their chances inflated.

Finely gifted players, an Agassi for instance, high on tactical nous and impervious to the pressure of the big point, will handle these outsiders, these floaters, these dark horses, even on odd bad days, but to a point. Everyone is quick, everyone hits the ball hard, everyone can rally. Roddick has an explosive serve, so indeed has Muller, and most others excluding those with a Spanish or Argentine passport. The separation between the top and the pack remains but it has diminished. Of course, such fellows like Muller will rarely win major tournaments, their talent does not stretch that far, it hums one day and then splutters like a used car the next. Often champions will not require their best games to win and cruise at 80 per cent; but they must be able to summon their greatness on command, aware that punishment for complacency is swift. Roddick, not at his best, met Muller on his best day; Muller unsurprisingly could not replicate it the next day and succumbed easily to Robbie Ginepri. But the damage was done.

As Roddick concurred after his defeat: "Everybody's a tough draw here. I mean, there's so many good players. I mean, you have to play from the word `go'." Taylor Dent, who is capable of manhandling opponents when his game finds itself, added: "It's a bummer for the tournament that Andy lost. But that's men's tennis. I mean, unfortunately it's just so deep. Anybody can lose on any given day."

Indeed, everybody has lost on a given day this year. Safin's losses this year, for instance, have included a chastising by the legendary Nicholas Almagro (No.93) and the equally famous Jose Acasuso (No.55). Hewitt has succumbed to Ivo Karlovic (No.108) and Florent Derra (No.140), Agassi has been ousted by Jurgen Melzer (No.34). All three champions have carried injury through the year, but rather than an excuse it suggests that anything less than full fitness and complete concentration promises only defeat. Even the extraordinarily hardy Rafael Nadal tripped in the first round of Cincinnati, just prior to the US Open, losing to Tomas Berdych, though the Czech, world No. 37, is no slouch really.

Part of the reason for such depth is also the true embrace of globalisation by tennis, its seduction of countries once beyond its reach or interest. This year's 64 ATP tournaments have been spread through 30 countries on six continents, moving beyond America and Europe to Chile and Japan, India and Qatar, China and Morocco. Stars have risen in these countries, like Pardorn Srichapan in Thailand, and inadvertently passions are ignited and revolutions sparked. Talent is being excavated in the unlikeliest of places, greatness tapped in new geographies.

In an older time, America and Australia and Great Britain and France dominated tennis, one indicator being that the Davis Cup, from its inception in 1900, did not move beyond the grasp of these four countries till 1974 when India gave South Africa a walkover in the final. But the game's face has altered dramatically, it is no longer the domain of the chosen few, but universally represented, locker rooms jammed with languages, colours and a united ambition.

A dissection of the Top 100 on the ATP entry rankings system is revealing, for it includes 12 Spaniards, 10 Argentines, 9 Frenchmen, 9 Czechs, 9 Americans, 7 Germans, 5 Italians, 4 Russians, 3 Swedes, 3 Croats, 3 Romanians, 3 Belgians, 2 Austrians, 2 Swiss, 2 Australians, 2 Brits, 2 Slovakians, 2 Chileans, and one player from Belarus, Finland, Peru, Korea, Luxembourg, Thailand, Denmark, Brazil, Ecuador, Cyprus and Serbia and Montenegro. Challenges are arriving from every side in every accent.

All of this is good for the game, its wider reach and thus its greater depth, for every match must hold the possibility of a contest, especially in a grand slam, and each man must reach deep into himself for victory.

Of course, Federer still makes it look easy, but then he is but one of a kind.